Microbats, Broken Skulls, Rocket Girls & Prehistoric Beach Bears

A few times a year, something strange takes place at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The scientists open their doors to filmmakers in order to teach Hollywood how to make movies about space more realistic. On these occasions, it's tough to tell who's more starstruck: the scientists or the moviemakers.

Like many L.A. locals, I come from an entertainment family. The people I know are more likely to understand the intricacies of executive-producing than the basics of calculus. Still, I often think I would've been a good scientist. I was enthralled by the aesthetics of the equations, though I couldn't figure them out. I had a deliberate and studious nature, and prided myself on my ability to solve puzzles. But the math did me in, and I exchanged science for science fiction. Now, I have to admit, I get a certain thrill just being in a building labeled "NASA," and the thrill comes less from any realistic notion of what that means and much more from associations I have with the sci-fi movies I grew up on.

It seems we all start with the same dreams, whether we become armchair scientists or real ones. Once we get past wanting to be a pirate or a fireman, who hasn't contemplated building spaceships and robots? Who doesn't want to dig up dinosaurs or play with people's brains or control the highest-flying plane in the world?

In most places these kinds of inclinations are killed quickly and gently, and people go quietly about the business of having normal lives. Here, however, in Los Angeles, things sometimes seem a bit different. Here, in a place built for the sole purpose of making the extraordinary into the everyday (at least, in pictures), there are people who have stuck to their first impulses. There are, as is to be expected in the entertainment capital of the world, those who grow up to make pictures about spaceships and fantastical things, and those who grow up to make the things themselves. Pictures not always included. These are the scientists, and there are more of them here than you think.

Modern Daedalus PAUL MacCREADY, inventor of the Gossamer Condor, the world's first human-powered aircraft, and founder and Chairman of the Board of Monrovia's AeroVironment, Inc., which creates human-powered and unmanned aerial vehicles, the first modern electric car and other efficient energy systems

"I personally think the most exciting period to live on Earth is from 1925, when I was born, until about 2025, when I probably won't be around. In 1971, to my surprise, I began AeroVironment. I thought it would be more fun to work for a big company, but as I looked around I couldn't find any big company that was interested in the sorts of things I was. The fact that I'm into different things is probably a symptom of my existence. I was interested in flying insects and then model airplanes as a youth. I was in Navy pilot training, and after World War II. I got seriously involved in sailplane flying and also flying power planes.

"AeroVironment is focused on doing more with less. Virtually everything we do deals with efficiency and doing the job with very little power, very little material and so on. We have a plane, the Helios, that flies two miles higher than any plane that's ever flown. It doesn't weigh very much and gets by on very little.

"[To come up with the Gossamer Condor] we learned from birds. For instance, birds soar over the forest, and vultures fly 10 or 15 miles an hour, never flapping their wings. It's an example of using the motions of the air -- up-currents and down-currents -- to stay up.

"It's all just a way of getting one's thinking straight. Before, I was thinking about airplanes and seaplanes and hydroplanes -- my reasoning was correct, it just didn't get me anyplace. But by going to the birds I came around to the right way of thinking."

Bat Man DR. YU-CHONG TAI, director of the Caltech Micromachining Laboratory, Caltech professor of electrical engineering and creator of the Microbat, the first radio-controlled, battery-powered flapping-wing Micro Aerial Vehicle

"Even a kid can envision that our future is full of robots. Robots on the ground, on water, in the air. And to be honest with you, the chance is 99.9 percent right that in the future we're going to have smarter, more efficient, really agile, powerful robots -- flying robots -- everywhere, to serve humans in a wonderful way. Much more advanced than what we have today. That's what we want with the Microbat project.  

"If you really think about the flapping-wing flier, the knowledge that we have is like what the Wright brothers had more than a hundred years ago. From a scientist's point of view we know too little about it. There will be a lot of applications once such a flier is available -- that can fly low enough, that's very power-efficient. Someday it can carry a supercomputer, it can carry a telecom link, it can carry sensors. Think about it. These things can go anywhere you want. In a tiny little corner, in a building, in your back yard, in the woods. They can monitor the air, water, food and security.

"Entertainment culture actually helps a lot. A lot of things we want to do as scientists show up in movies. Even the flapping-wing ornithopter shows up in movies many times, although they have no idea how to make it. When we write proposals and there are reviewers reading our proposals they've already been influenced by visions from the movies. It is, a lot of times, a closed-loop kind of thing. Scientists produce some crazy ideas and then they make it into the movies, and then the movies make more people believe those things can be real. A lot of these things are not just crazy ideas. I think they will become real."

Space Cowgirl DR. CLAUDIA ALEXANDER, research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Project Manager and Project Scientist of the U.S. Rosetta Project, and a science coordinator on the Galileo Project

"Most people at JPL multitask. The days where scientists go in the lab and putter around all day just do not happen anymore. You've gotta be productive. One project I'm working on is the Galileo Project mission. We're on our last and final encounter before we plunge into Jupiter. I've been associated with the project for almost 16 years. It's a great source of pride for me to be on the flight team for this fantastic mission, and to be here when we're getting ready to close out the flight.

"I started out representing two of the 11 instruments on the payload. I write the instrument commands. I work with the science teams to figure out, down to the thousandth of a second, exactly what the instrument is going to do, 24/7. That's been a wonderful challenge.

"When we started the mission, it was exploratory. People would ask me, what are you going to do? And the answer was, we don't know. We are there to see what can be seen, feel what can be felt, explore an unknown environment so we can learn about it.

"When the first data started coming down, we saw things that we never expected to see. Moons with magnetospheres. We still don't have an explanation for that. Moons that were supposed to be frozen solid that actually have plate tectonics and icy volcanism going on. We still don't have a good explanation for that. Why are these moons not frozen solid and dead?

"At the end of the prime mission, we said, my God, this moon, Europa, may actually have water and oceans underneath, with life or potential life.

"We want to find [life]. Absolutely. And even now it's really disappointing when you think that, if there is extraterrestrial life, it's probably bacteria and microbial life. Because you want Star Wars. I want to meet Spock. I think that, as intellectual beings, we fantasize about meeting other intellects similar to our own. It's just a basic human desire."

The Thinker STEVEN R. QUARTZ, Ph.D., director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, recipient of the National Science Foundation's CAREER award for young faculty, and author of Liars, Lovers and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are

"The world-view that science presents is one in which, ultimately, the world has a deep layer of randomness. Why the world [exists] is kind of a random consequence of initial conditions that don't care about people and don't care about making the world coherent. And that comes deeply, I think, into conflict with a brain that has evolved into being rewarded by coherence in our life. I think we do science because we want to find coherence in the world around us. We want to find out why things work.  

"The question of where our own mind ends and the world begins is a fuzzy one. We are always engaging in the world, and increasingly we're putting more and more of the brain's mechanisms into the environment. Computers are a good example. We take the things that our brain is bad at doing, like mathematics, and we build calculators and computers, and that allows understanding, to really visualize information that we couldn't just do mentally. The Internet, too, is a good example of how we offload into the world.

"But I think at the end of the day scientists want their work to try to relate back to the more general kinds of questions that I think everyone asks themselves. There's this idealized notion that science is insensitive to the culture, that it's purely driven by rational kinds of facts and explanations, but science and culture interact with each other increasingly. I think scientists are interested in engaging in issues of culture, of how scientific understanding feeds into the world and how the world feeds back into science. Science fiction is ultimately the integration of science and its possibilities."

The Humanist STEVEN DOWELL, research criminalist at the Los Angeles County Office of the Coroner

"As a criminalist it's my responsibility to examine, collect and analyze certain items of physical evidence. The two areas that I work in are the areas of gunshot residue analysis and tool-mark analysis. The puzzle of it is the interesting part. It may be that I'm the one who has the piece that completes a certain part of the puzzle, but it's only because whoever was in front of me -- the initial police officer who comes to the scene, the coroner's investigator, the transport person, the detective -- did their jobs correctly and preserved the maximum amount of information. Forensic science is a team effort.

"The material we're dealing with -- human tissue -- is a relatively poor material for holding information. So it's a challenge, because as soon as you die, you're on a pretty steep slope toward decomposition. Your chemical information is changing, and your physical information is changing rapidly. So the whole challenge is to get to that information as soon as possible, document and preserve it as soon as possible, and then try to make some sort of comparison.

"I move about the world with an awareness, but not a paranoia. I don't have bars on my windows. I don't have pepper spray. You realize that at any given time you're walking past people who have no idea that they will end up at the Coroner's Office. It gives you a sense that life is pretty precious and to get the most out of it because you really don't know when you're going to be on the daily list, as they say here. The bottom line is that we're engaged in this dance in order to not go with our dark side. We're struggling with that on a daily basis in society. To some degree, people don't go to the dark side because they're afraid of getting caught. And if it has to be that we're only being good because we might get caught, well, I guess that's a start."

Rocket Girl DR. ROSALY LOPES, astronomer/volcanologist at JPL/NASA, also worked as a science coordinator on the Galileo Flight Project, and was responsible for planning observations of volcanic activity on Io

"I used to dream of being a scientist and working for NASA when I was a little girl. Now I study volcanoes on Earth and volcanoes on the planets. I came to JPL and to the United States via Italy and England, and originally I'm from Brazil. I really wanted to be involved in the exploration of planets, and JPL is just the best place to be for that. And here, rather than just study what the missions bring down to Earth, we actually plan them. Sometimes I drive up and I look at the gate -- Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- and I think to myself, 'Wow, I'm really working here!' Even after more than 10 years the excitement really hasn't worn off. My friends are very interested in what I do -- they call me 'Rocket Girl.' But sometimes they're quite surprised. When I worked on Galileo, just seeing the observations for the first time and finding new volcanoes that no one knew about before, it was a real thrill. But I still feel a need to go to volcanoes on Earth, now and then, even if I'm not actually doing it for science. I'll take a vacation and go to a volcano. I just can't stay away from them for very long."


Species Hunter LAWRENCE G. BARNES, Ph.D., curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum or Los Angeles County, specializing in fossilized marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and sea lions

"Growing up in L.A., I was collecting fossilized marine mammals as a student in high school. They were around here; they were local. That's part of the story -- telling what was here in the past, and then relating it to what's here now. I was hired here [at the Natural History Museum] because they wanted somebody to work on fossilized marine mammals, which are abundant on the west coast of North America, in Southern California and in the Los Angeles basin. If you're going to work on fossilized marine mammals, basically it's L.A. or Washington, D.C. I've been [at the museum] a little over 30 years now.

"Part of the thrill of this business is finding something that nobody ever knew about and therefore getting to name a new species. I've had a pretty good run of it. Probably, I'd guess, I'm pushing about 40 new species right now, with a lot more still to go. I named one animal Kolponomos newportenss. These are related to primitive bears that lived on the shoreline, and they probably were clam-crunchers, which means they probably ate shells, mollusks, things like that that live on rocks. So I called them 'beach bears.' Nobody had ever coined that term before. In fact, I've named all but one of the known animals in this group.

"Every week it seems there are new things. A bone that I have on the shelf was shown to me yesterday -- I don't know what it is. And there's a skull sitting next to the flowerpot, which is the best skull of a ground sloth, a Shasta ground sloth, ever found in Southern California, outside of Rancho La Brea. It was found in Chino Hills.

"When the museum was responsible for saving all the fossils that were being turned up by construction activities in Southern California, I was in the field sometimes two, three, four, five days a week, even seven days a week. Now I'm in the field probably eight or 10 days a year. A lot of it is because, one, I'm older and doing other things. Two, a lot of the people who were students and associates of my museum are now working for environmental-assessment companies that go out and actually collect the fossils. Because of things like the Environmental Protection Act, the California Equality Act of 1972 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1973, a lot of the counties and cities, and state and federal organizations, require the salvage of fossils and other items of antiquity during construction. So there are probably 200 people in the California area doing that work every day of the week."

Web Master STEPHEN NAFTILAN, Ph.D., professor of physics at the Joint Science Center of the Claremont Colleges, researching stellar astrophysics, star formation and spider web construction

"The colleges are very liberal in what they'll let you do. I can head off in bizarre directions. I've taught classes in postmodernism. I team-taught a course in extraterrestial biology.

"I'm working on two projects right now. In astronomy I'm looking at the abundance of three elements -- lithium, beryllium and boron -- in the atmospheres of certain stars. All of the stars I'm looking at have planets. And I'm curious about how the planet affects the early evolution of the star. The reason I'm looking at those three elements is that each of those elements is destroyed by high but different temperatures. So by looking at the abundance pattern, we can tell something about the circulation patterns in the upper atmosphere of the star and get an idea about how those are being affected by the presence of the planet.

"As for the spider stuff . . . I'm looking at spider webs. Spiders obtain information about what's going on in their web through the vibrations that are transmitted through the web when prey -- a fly, say -- gets caught in the web. I'm interested in questions of discrimination -- how does the spider know what it's caught? Is it a fly, which is dinner, or is it a big bee, which is a potential danger? Or even a stick, which is not worth going after? The spider clearly knows.  

"The other problem I'm working on is orientation. The spider doesn't just randomly run around the web; it runs right to the prey. But spiders have terrible vision. In fact, you can put patches over their eyes so they can't see and they can still catch the prey. They're doing it by vibrations. I'm curious to know, what is the mechanism? Different amplitudes? If the prey is more to the right, are there stronger vibrations coming from the right as opposed to the left? Or is it a time-delay factor? Will they get the vibrations from the right first and then a millisecond later get it from the left?

"So that I can answer some of these questions, I've built fake insects with devices that mimic the vibrations that insects produce. It's quite humorous to see a spider attack a big metal stick. It comes running up and embraces it and acts like it's going to bite it, then it's like, 'What's this?'

"I should add that my spiders are well-fed. They're very resilient."

Sea Wolf DR. JERRY SCHUBEL, president and CEO of the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Director of the Marine Conservation Research Institute

"I grew up on Lake Huron, and I've had an interaction with water all of my life. But here in California, all of the uses that we make of the ocean collide in more dramatic ways than anywhere else in the United States, and maybe the world. We've got 80 percent of the large population living within 50 miles of the coast, we've destroyed 90 percent of our wetlands, we've diverted the fresh water away from the coast to turn the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley into agricultural areas -- they used to be deserts.

"The challenge now: Can we figure out ways to live in harmony with our environment and with each other? It's a perfect laboratory for an aquarium like this one [in Long Beach]. These are wonderful institutions. They're called free-choice learning institutions. You choose what you're going to look at and what you're going to learn. Science is beautiful and fun. It's not something we have to overcome. When you're a scientist working within your discipline, you write for your peers. And now, when I write a paper or give a talk, I'm writing for the public.

"People in Southern California are less averse to taking risks than they are in New England. Scientists are, by nature, risk takers within their own fields, because if you don't take risks you make only incremental advances in understanding. It's kind of a big stage out here. If we can choreograph the play in an interesting way, then we can become a model for other parts of the country and other parts of the world."

Quake Tracker DONALD ARGUS, Ph.D., geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, specializing in satellite geodesy to pinpoint and predict earthquakes

"I apply NASA technology to outstanding geoscience problems. You have a GPS [Global Positioning System] in the car that tells you where you are to about a hundred meters. We bring that data back and we figure out [our] position to about 10 millimeters. And then we use that to watch the earth move, to watch the plates move, and to monitor the strain building up across Los Angeles.

"I'm perfectly comfortable living here. My building is on a fault. [There was] a magnitude 6.5 quake there 3,000 years ago. It's okay unless an earthquake ruptures right underneath it. We found that where the squeezing is the fastest is in the northern part of metropolitan Los Angeles, between the Santa Monica Mountains, Beverly Hills and the San Gabriel Mountains. The Valley is bad. Pasadena is right in the contractions. Venice is fine. But that's [based on] sort of an average over the next thousand years.

"When you feel the big ones, it's exciting. When there's an earthquake, what do you do, you know? You just wait 'til it's over . . . hopefully, you're not washing the windows."

Nostrildamus TIMOTHY BURCH, Ph.D., director of research and development at Pasadena's Cyrano Sciences, maker of the Cyranose 320, the Electronic Nose

"We refer to what Cyranose does as smelling. That analogy works well whether it's the chemical environment above a liquid or whether it's actually a food product or something hazardous. Primarily, the Cyranose 320, which was designed to be used by non-scientists, has been utilized in quality-control applications. A user might say, I want to know if the flour that I'm using smells rotten, or the milk that I'm using has a taint to it. Or maybe the containers that I put my final product in -- the plastic or the cardboard -- might have an off odor. When I say 'off odor,' that really means some change in the chemistry. It may not be something that we can smell easily.  

"You could train this device to do something very similar to what odor panelists do. And the advantage here is that it doesn't need to take a bathroom break, doesn't get tired after an eight-hour shift and doesn't become exhausted [or lose its] ability to make fine detail discriminations -- you know, this Bordeaux versus that Bordeaux. We've gotten profound interest, but translating that into lots and lots of sales has been harder because there's a very strong desire to maintain the human element in that type of sensing.

"One of the areas where we've found a lot of interest and have been able to demonstrate a high degree of sensitivity is chemical weapons. In particular, things like nerve gas and mustard gas. We've done a lot of laboratory testing -- there are only a couple of places in the world where you can do these kinds of tests safely. But we'd never pursued military government work until the events of September 11. Suddenly people started calling us and sending e-mails to the Web site. There's a huge need for another type of vapor sensor, but we're not going to allow it until we've done additional testing."

Gas Man DR. GEORGE V. CHILINGAR, professor of petroleum and environmental engineering at USC, chief of the Petroleum and Chemical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Ohio from 1954 to 1956, and the senior petroleum engineering adviser to the United Nations from 1967 to 1969

"I have 51 books and 500 publications in the field of petroleum engineering, petroleum geology. And I am an honorary Consul of Honduras in Los Angeles. In Iran there's an oil field named after me. They used my calcium-magnesium ratio technique for carbonate rocks.

"I'm also doing a lot of work on global warming, and it's really a myth. The cause and effect are somehow interchanged. We are at the peak of the sun cycle, and that's why we get a lot of heat at the earth's surface. That's the reason for the increase in temperature, not the CO2.

"I travel a lot. I do consulting for different governments. But there's no place like Los Angeles. I think the public should be aware that while Los Angeles is the center of the entertainment industry, it's also the center of scientific brainpower. Los Angeles is the storehouse of brainpower. I have people to talk to, to exchange ideas with. It's the best place in the world to live. I think the climate attracts all these people. It's the great natural laboratory for studying the earthquakes and for predicting the earthquakes.

"There are also a huge number of Russian scientists who live here now, and I work with many of them jointly on different projects. I'm very, very proud to work with the Russian scientists in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I am the president of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences branch of the United States. By the way, they also don't believe in global warming.

"I have been teaching at USC since 1954. I'm not planning to retire. I'm still very strong, going very strong. I attribute this great success of mine to the fact that I brought several disciplines together. My time never ends, you know. Even at night I sit and I write. I write at night and I don't get much sleep. And of course, in the daytime I teach. I love to work with the students. My father said, 'never retire.' Because if you retire you go down."

Cellular One DR. SOLOMON W. GOLOMB, professor of mathematics at USC with an emphasis in signal design for communications and radar, and the first person to successfully bounce a radar signal off another planet

"I was involved in the very early days of space communication. I was trying to devise methods of communication for the Army that no unintended listener could figure out. It was a technique that I'd started working on that became known as spread spectrum communication. The military use of it was called direct sequence spread spectrum communication. That's what that diagram relates to. One of the people who worked in my group at JPL was Andrew Viterbi, who became a cofounder of Qualcomm in San Diego in 1985. He was the chief developer of this digital technique for cell phones called CDMA -- which stands for Code Division Multiple Access -- but it is direct sequence spread spectrum technique applied to cell phone communication. I find it almost unimaginable how broad the applications have been. When I started on this I was applying areas of mathematics that all the authorities had said could never be applied to anything.  

"I'm finishing my fortieth year of full-time service at USC now. And, of course, the changes here have been beyond belief. I think one of the reasons that Southern California has developed so dramatically in the communications arena is that we did have this concentration of aerospace systems companies. Not just the companies that built airplanes, but the companies that did studies for the military. Also, the aircraft companies [across the country used to have] a very unenlightened view of how to treat engineers. Engineers did not have private offices. They were in little cubicles, and until you were a fairly high level of supervisor you didn't even have a little partition 4 feet high separating you from the next desk. The first changes in that occurred in Southern California, I think at Hughes Aircraft. They said that if you're going to have people doing research, they need a better environment, and that spread in the L.A. area long before it hit the rest of the country. And people liked the climate here. It was a lot easier to recruit, to get people to come to Southern California than to go to Buffalo, New York."


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